A Swim in Denial

What we can't think about and how it shapes us.

Banishing Childhood Nightmares

Fight, flight, and taking charge

Here's a story that may be useful:

 Dad has two daughters, let's call them Vivian and Ellen. Vivian, the older and more volatile kid, has weathered many a bad dream in her early years. When dreams wake her, she's usually coped by finding Dad, who's often at the keyboard after midnight, climbing into his lap, and describing the dream in vivid detail. When Dad assures her that dreams are only another form of thinking, Vivian enthusiastically begins wondering out loud about why she might have been thinking about tonight's particular monsters. Since Vivian's temperament is pretty assertive, with no shortage of indignation and anger in difficult moments, her explanations of her dreams work to calm her down. By turning her nightmare into a story, taking the role of author, she controls an experience which otherwise would seem to control her—and, in the wisdom of slang, "scare the daylights out of her."

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 Ellen, the younger sister, is temperamentally calmer and more inward. Unlike Vivian, she's slept serenely to age 5, when suddenly one night she awakens in terror and jumps into Dad's lap with sobs and streaming tears: actually speechless with anguish.

 Dad tries to comfort the dreamer with the storyteller trick: "You know, Vivian makes her bad dreams go away by talking about them. Why don't you tell me what you were dreaming about?"

 Ellen stops sobbing just long enough to croak, "I'd rather not."

 Rinse and repeat.

 By this time Dad's shirt is soaked and the dreamer is still tormented. Dad begins to wonder about the creaturely motives implied in Ellen's behavior. Where Vivian is inclined to fight, Ellen's woken up with her nervous system in flight. The nightmare is bigger than she is, as mysteriously alien as it is menacing. In sleep she's in unfamiliar, dangerous territory where monsters are overwhelmingly in control.

 In hopes of a dry shirt, Dad reaches for the nightmare emergency kit. Though he knows the answer, he asks Ellen, "How old are you?"

"Five," she says.

"Good. Then you're old enough for me to teach you the trick I taught Vivian to stop her nightmares."

"What is it?" Ellen snuffles.

"Come with me."

Reluctantly she lets Dad direct her back to her bed. She lies on her back, still crying, body rigid as a plank. Dad whispers: "You're the boss of your own mind."

"No I'm not." More helpless tears.

"Yes, you really are. But it only works if you take charge of your thoughts."

"But I can't."

"Sure you can. But that's why you need the secret."

"What's"—sob—"the secret?"

"You have to say 'Get out of here you bad dream, and don't you ever bother me again!'"

(!)

"Try it."

Tentatively, almost beseechingly, Ellen says, "Get out here, you—"

"Whoops, no. You have to show the dream you really mean it."

"How do I do that?"

"Get angry. Say 'GET OUT OF HERE, YOU BAD DREAM, AND DON'T YOU EVER BOTHER ME AGAIN!"

"But I'll wake Mum."

"That's OK. Try it."

"Get out of here, you bad—"

"Louder."

"But I'll wake everybody up."

"Good. Wake up the neighbors if you have to."

After ten or more tries, each a little bolder than the one before, Ellen finally managed to bellow the magic formula. And in no time: Zzzzzzzzz.

 Some months later Dad wakes up in the dead of night thinking a truck or a horn has shaken up his sleep. But then in another room he hears a small voice sternly commanding a bad dream to scram. Followed by Zzzzzzzzz.

 There's an epilogue or at least another chapter to the story. Months later, Mum, Dad, and the girls are in the balcony of the local theater for a holiday performance of "The Nutcracker" ballet. The lights go down, the stage is alight. A Christmas tree is festooned with ornaments—symbolic harvest fruit in the barren dead end of the year. There are presents and the warm glow of family. The music begins to hypnotize the audience.

 Before long, the sinister mouse dances into the family living room. And in the first row of the balcony, Ellen leaps to her feet, clutches the brass rail, and bellows at the top of her lungs, "GET OUT OF HERE, YOU BAD MOUSE!"

 You can see that by ritualizing and giving permission for anger, Dad's experiment was turning flight into fight. The ritual was designed for an individual Ellen, but the principle can be useful.

 As in the Victorian childrens' prayer, sleep is a little death, and kids' fear of "falling" asleep is perfectly reasonable. The prayer comes from an era when many of your kids would be dead by age 10, and their siblings would know first-hand that they were (so far at least) lucky survivors:

 Now I lay me down to sleep

I pray the Lord my soul to keep.

If I should die before I wake,

I pray the Lord my soul to take. 

Today that terror's mostly banished like the evil mouse, but the dynamics of sleep are still frightening. After all, nightmare monsters usually dramatize the inchoate threat of death and oblivion that haunts humans of all ages. Talking back to death, the awakened sleeper is "getting up her nerve," fortifying her courage. Once she regains "self-confidence," she can begin to explore what she's dreaming: what she's thinking in sleep—that is, herself.

Like the role of storyteller, as "boss of your own mind," Ellen was reconstituting her conscious self from sleep. Instead of narrating a dream and objectifying it that way, she was acting out a social script, a confrontation with an overwhelming menace. In effect, she was practicing talking back to a world that is always bigger than we are, and whose dominance over us would ultimately stand for conformity and inauthenticity and death—outcomes Dad was in no rush to explain to the dreamer, since by learning to stand up to the world, she was well on her way to learning about the philosophical implications in person. 

Kirby Farrell, Ph.D.'s most recent book is Berserk Style in American Culture.

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